Profiles in Bloggage, Part 1

January 18th, 2011 by Editor B

In April, I’ll be making a presentation to a special interest group of the AERA titled “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” My plan is to tell five separate stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. I thought I would share my notes here as I complete them. This, then, is the first of five stories. I welcome any feedback.

Karen is a Terrorist

I still remember the first time I met Karen Gadbois. It was at a recovery meeting in Gert Town back in May of 2006. I even wrote about it — the meeting, that is. I didn’t write about the crazy lady bending my ear. I didn’t know her name at the time but I’m pretty sure it was Karen who left this comment on that same post:

you have to go just to witness..it is like a farce played out as a drama with great lines tossed out by those who know..and the ones that wished they knew and the ones that hope you don’t know..i believe we should jam the process by over attending..go to every meeting for every district..pack the place..

Of course ultimately it turns out Karen wasn’t so crazy after all. She was pissed off and paranoid, as was I, as was everyone with half a brain.

Over the next year, I got to know Karen better. She started a blog called Squandered Heritage, with a first post on August 15, 2006. (Actually the original site was called Blighted New Orleans, but the Squandered Heritage title was suggested in the discussion on that very first post.) I have to admit I didn’t quite get the concept at first, but in retrospect Karen’s focus was clear. She was concerned with what she saw as a rush to demolish many buildings too quickly, destroying cultural assets without due consideration of alternatives. With great rapidity she began posting photographs of many homes that were slated for demolition. She was also an outspoken critic of plans for a drugstore at a prominent intersection, plans which would have required substantial waivers from the City’s regulations. She labored in relative obscurity, at first, though an editorial by Bryan Batt labeled such efforts as borderline terrorism.

By the summer of 2007 Karen’s work was getting some attention. Then the city published a list of over 1,700 properties that were designated as “imminent threats” to public safety, in need of immediate demolition, circumventing whatever legal process was in place. Some of these houses were truly unsalvageable wrecks, but some were in pretty good shape. Meanwhile, plenty of houses in danger of collapse were not on the list. My next-door neighbor was on the list, much to his shock and alarm. It was maddening. Karen and her compatriots were documenting the madness; local bloggers (such as Ashley Morris, about whom more later) helped by constructing interactive maps from the demolition lists or writing about the issue on their blogs.

The corporate media continued to ignore the story, locally. But then in August the Wall Street Journal ran an article on their front page, and so at last the issue got some local press, and (perhaps?) a measure of sanity was restored to the process.

Fast forward another year. In the summer of 2008, Karen began asking questions about New Orleans Affordable Housing (NOAH) on her blog. At first, it looked as if the City was allocating FEMA money to NOAH to gut and remediate houses, and later spending more FEMA money on demolishing the same houses. But it turned out to be much worse than that. Karen discovered that many NOAH houses hadn’t been worked on at all. But someone was certainly collecting the money.

Local television reporter Lee Zurik picked up the story from Karen. The mayor resisted fiercely, but soon the FBI was involved and NOAH was shut down. Here’s an excerpt from a story in the NY Times:

The F.B.I. on Monday raided the agency running the program, the local United States attorney announced last week he was investigating, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin, hauled grudgingly before the City Council, complained about what he called “amateur investigations,” a reluctant nod to Ms. Gadbois and her followers in the news media.

The investigative work of Karen and Lee garnered some awards, including a Peabody and an Investigative Reporters and Editors’ IRE Medal.

Here’s what Zurik had to say about Gadbois and bloggers in New Orleans (Where Yat):

They’re a valuable part of our community because first of all, they’re opinionated and they pay attention to everything. Where the media sometimes doesn’t get to watch over everything, they become another watchdog of what’s going on. It’s important. In the NOAH story, we got our initial tip from a blogger, Karen Gadbois (www.squanderedheritage.com), which shows the value and importance of that community. It’s different from what we do. We have to get both sides or we should. We should be objective. It’s different but they have still become an important piece of the city and how the city functions. I go to a handful every couple days just to see. For me, it’s good as a reporter. You want to get a sense of what people are thinking and what people are feeling in the community you cover . . . It’s obviously not the feeling of everyone here, but it gives you a sense of what some are thinking and feeling, and that helps on a daily basis when you do cover the news and try to decide what to cover and what not to cover.

Personally, I’m amazed at the tenacity Karen showed in pursuing her leads and sticking by her guns. When she started she didn’t have much support. Neighborhood activists are often dismissed as nutty, even by people who should know better (see above). It’s a real challenge to keep after something like this day after day, year after year, when the powers that be are arrayed against you. Karen’s courage and determination make her a hero for me and many others.

Karen has gone on to found The Lens with Ariella Cohen. It’s the first nonprofit journalism venture in the city of New Orleans.

14 Responses to “Profiles in Bloggage, Part 1”

  1. Maitri Says:

    Thanks for documenting this important part of New Orleans’s recent history. This is great work!

    The NW Carrollton – Walgreens battle is documented in detail at the Northwest Carrollton blog. Thought you may want to add that link to the above post somewhere as that was Karen’s main online haunt for a long time as well as to show how Karen carried her activism all the way from her own neighborhood to the rest of the city, online and out on the streets.

  2. Editor B Says:

    You’re right Maitri. I looked at northwestcarrollton.com, noticed it had lapsed, and forgot it started on blogspot.

    “There has been a war on the corner of Carrollton and Claiborne.”
    http://nwcarrollton.blogspot.com/2006/08/4-corners.html

  3. Michael Homan Says:

    I first learned about Karen Gadbois when you told me about her [redacted]. That was awesome, but Karen’s continued and steady work focused on transparency and accountability have been very inspiring and obviously valuable to the people of New Orleans. It’s amazing how much Karen has accomplished during the past 5 years.

  4. Editor B Says:

    Shh, Michael, I think that’s still classified information.

  5. Anne Says:

    This is really lovely. I’ve only met Karen once, in the briefest way, but I’ve been immensely impressed by everything she’s ever done. She’s a citizen crusader who I would love to clone.

  6. Anthony Says:

    Yeah, can’t share the love.

    I try not to be bitter about it. I don’t always succeed.

    There is a group around here with such reflexive anti-development attitudes that I feel it is crippling the city and it’s ability to have a vibrant economy. And these people generally fall into two categories.

    1) The old money. As in “Hey, it’s working for me, don’t change a thing, particularly if it’s going to put someone in a position to challenge me economically or politically” Which is why most queen’s of Rex claim to be interested in preservation.

    2) The transplant. There is a certain “keep New Orleans poor and funky” strain that runs through some in the transplant community that betrays a lack of understanding that broke is a result of decades of bad decisions and at many points throughout its history we had money in this town and were interested in innovation and building for the future.

    The transplants have an almost neo-colonialist obsession with stopping change. In a city that desperately needs it. Change to bring in the jobs and business to make the whole city viable. Change to change the landscape to more popular forms of housing (there is a good reason they haven’t built a new shotgun house in a century or we don’t grid out for 33′ lots)

    Opposition to the new hospitals. Support of the master plan because someone might raise their house about base flood elevation and she thinks that might be bad. Weepy testimonials about abandoned buildings and storefronts without examining the underlying economic collapse that pushed out half the population. Zoning fights that keep buildings and lots empty, people unemployed and sale tax revenue moving across the parish line. And just what seems to be a general lack of understanding that a vibrant economy is the basis for all recovery has lead me to look at anything coming out of squanderedheritage or thelens with massive truckloads of salt.

    Now if I can respect the NOAH work in isolation, I’ll tip my hat, but what seems to be the rest of the agenda is more destructive to the health of the city and its viability into the future.

  7. Matt Says:

    Stay classy Anthony!

    And by the way, the next time your work in helping the city leads to the highest awards in journalism, recognition from major national and international media, funding from top foundations, and the ability to bend the ear of nearly every power figure in town, let us know. Until then, perhaps you should adhere to the old dictum – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.

  8. Karen Says:

    Thanks Bart.

    As far as it goes Anthony I think you continue to confuse me with a cartoon you have in your head.

  9. Deborah Says:

    Karen, I will always be grateful to you for your tireless efforts to repair the world through your work here in the NO.

    New Orleans natives who don’t appreciate and tend to disrespect their own city and fellow residents usually stoop to the criticizing those not ‘born of the manner’ for defending it. In the end, their hollow criticisms aren’t worth the shabbily constructed soapbox they’re spoken from. Karen’s body of work, subsequent successes, awards and citywide/state/and national acclaim speaks for itself. Yours Anthony, not so much.

  10. liprap Says:

    Anthony, this is bigger and much more dimensional than the awards. Karen’s work with The Lens is helping expose all the threads that keep this city in dire straits – and as far as development goes, there’s a lot here that could be simply renovated rather than completely razed. It’s not about holding this city back, or about quick fixes, it’s about how we can consider the past as a significant part in helping us move forward as a better place – WITHOUT throwing it completely away. Speaking of reflexively tearing things down and starting completely over in the name of solely economic development makes you sound like a disciple of Dennis Hastert’s – and he wasn’t even interested in keeping New Orleans around. I applaud your wanting to keep this city around, but I can’t applaud your attitude.

    Bravo on this first part of your series, Bart.

  11. Bess Says:

    Anthony, your anti-development, vibrancy rant strikes me as really bizarre when you target the blogger, Karen Gadbois, and stick her in your nonsensical web of tangled logic. How did you get from your phrase “neo-colonialist stopping change” to the work Karen did after the storm? Man where have you been? I see you in Williamsburg in a tiny house pissing about arguing whether to use wax instead of animal tallow? Neo-colonialism stopping change, really? How does that even make sense? When you peep out of your hole do you see horse drawn carts creaking by?

    Strike up an argument that makes sense and take it down to City Hall where the economic development offices haven’t been able to access their G drives for three months leaving most of the contracts and the business of moving the city forward languishing in a data void. Across the street the City Council’s emails are also half on and half off again and again and again. Oh, and what about the fried mortgage and conveyance indexes? Tried to do a real estate exchange lately?

    Sharpen your sites, Anthony and go after the folks who are mucking up the large volume areas of the city’s commerce.

  12. Loki Says:

    Anthony, unthinking support of just anything that looks pro development is a dangerous stance to take. If these projects are on the up and up then can they not survive a bit of scrutiny?

    I feel comfortable when people like Karen, with a proven track record of rooting out the corruption underneath the shiny sell, are on the case.

    I’m no transplant, my family has been here since the city was founded. I’ve also known Karen and watched her hone her skills over the years since ’05. She has earned respect and support. What have you done to combat the attempts to cash in behind the scenes on our rebuild?

    Letting any dev project just get waved on through in the name of progress is an invitation to disaster and corruption.

  13. Tim Says:

    No doubt about it: Karen is great! We need more like her.

    Thanks, Bart, for recognizing and praising Karen.

    Peace,

    Tim

  14. EM Says:

    Karen, You rock!

    Bart, You rock also!

    You and others stood up and wouldn’t stand for much of the crap we were being fed and in some cases still being fed. You also showed others how to stand up. The vision of Saundra, Bart and Karen at the crime march scolding the Mayor will probably never leave my head. How do you think he felt when 5000 people showed up and said you aren’t doing your job?

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